No Room in $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill to Defend Conscience Rights

(photo: Register Files)

Just days before Christmas, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed alarm at Congress' failure to pass vital legislation to protect conscience rights for Catholic health providers.
“The bishops of the United States are gravely disappointed that the 2016 omnibus funding bill did not include the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA)," read Archbishop Kurtz's Dec. 23 statement.  "While the omnibus bill certainly addresses other critical issues, the modest reform that ANDA represents—to make federal conscience laws on abortion workable and enforceable—was an urgent legislative priority in these final months of the year.

"Many Catholic and other institutions, including those that provide health care and other human services to the poor and vulnerable, have joined in our support of ANDA.  Without ANDA, these caring organizations face legal threats to their very existence, as they lack clear and enforceable protection for their freedom to serve the needy in accord with their deepest moral convictions on respect for human life."  

When the dust settled after last week's passage of the massive $1.1 trillion spending bill, pro-life activists on Capitol Hill had little to show for their efforts. Despite the political furor created by undercover videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood trafficking in the sale of fetal body parts, the nation's largest abortion provider will experience no break in federal funding for the new fiscal year. 

But that was not the only bad news. The spending bill's passage last week marked two other defeats for the pro-life movement, as reported by the Washington Post:

The Freedom Caucus and Pro-Life Caucus also pushed for language in the omnibus known as the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) that would provide protections for organizations that have conscience objections to covering abortions in their insurance plans. A third request was to cut off funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an entity that conservatives say supports China’s “coercive birth limitation policy.” 

The failure to pass ANDA reflects a successful effort by abortion rights activists to reframe legislation upholding conscience protections as a tool of partisan extremists and a threat to women's health. 

Last year,  Church leaders were alarmed when California’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) identified elective abortion as a “basic health service,” and mandated its coverage in all state health care plans with no religious exemptions.   

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has ramped up its crusade to force Catholic hospitals to provide access to direct abortions.  

In 2013,  it sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, alleging that the bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which provide a moral framework for medical decision and treatment at Church-affiliated hospitals and nursing homes, led one hospital to deny appropriate medial treatment to Tamesha Means. In July, a federal judge rejected that claim, but the ACLU quickly appealed that decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This fall, the  ACLU sued Trinity Health, one of the nation's largest Catholic healthcare networks, arguing that its failure to provide access to abortions “violates... the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, known as EMTALA.”

But Archbishop Kurtz rejected such arguments.

“No one should be forced by the government to actively participate in what they believe to be the taking of an innocent life. This is not about ‘access’ to abortion. The principle at stake is whether people of faith and others who oppose abortion and abortion coverage should be compelled to participate in them.”

He defended ANDA as “an attempt to to give them a more consistent means of enforcement” of federal statutes.

 “Without it, current federal conscience laws are, now for the first time, being enforced erratically or not at all in places such as California.”